Duress Alerting Improves Schools’ Situational Awareness

Panic alarms are another tool that can supplement law enforcement and video surveillance.

The unfortunate trend of violence at schools has reached a crescendo with 26 killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. While this tragic incident has sparked new discussions on gun laws, the state of our mental health system, and violent entertainment, particularly video games, the overarching issue of school safety and security remains. How can we better protect our children as they go about getting an education?

Post-Columbine, K-12 schools were a primary focus for emergency alerting and response, but the default reaction was to increase the number of police officers or merely install video surveillance cameras. These aren’t bad ideas, but in and of themselves they don’t provide situational awareness.

Banks Have Panic Buttons; So Should Schools

The ability to detect and respond to potential threats to people and property in real time does exist. We don’t have to settle for an investigation after an incident has occurred. Sadly, perhaps now we’re finally willing to replace our apathy and naiveté with preparedness and implement technology that sets in motion notifications to administrators, security personnel and/or emergency services. If every bank in America has a panic button, why don’t our schools?

I can’t help but make that comparison as well as look at these ironies: every hospital has an infant abduction system because infants have been kidnapped from nurseries, and senior living communities are required to install appropriate life safety systems such as nurse call. Does this mean our lives only have value when we’re babies or seniors but not in between? Of course not.  

Related Article: Your 8-Point School Inspection Checklist

For a full life cycle of protection, we also must look after our daycare centers, K-12 schools, and colleges and universities. At a minimum, they all should be equipped with duress alerting so help can be summoned urgently and with discretion so as to avoid escalating a potentially dangerous situation.

Fixed and Mobile Duress Options Available

Duress alerting falls into two categories: fixed and mobile. Fixed panic buttons are installed as permanent fixtures and used to indicate a specific or coded alert. For example, each button on a four-button fixed duress device can be programmed for a different alert: student fight, medial emergency such as a hurt or injured student or teacher, threat against a teacher, armed intruder, etc.

Fixed duress devices can be placed in a variety of locations, including classrooms (e.g., under the teacher’s desk or on a wall), administrative offices, cafeterias, libraries, playgrounds and ball fields, and cash-handling areas particularly at colleges and universities.   

Mobile duress devices, also referred to as personal panic buttons or pendants, are carried by individuals on their person, usually worn on a chain around the neck under clothing or within a pocket. These devices aren’t used to issue specific or coded alerts but rather just to indicate that immediate help is required. Responders won’t know what the emergency is – just that there is one.

With smarter mesh networks, devices and software also comes enhanced location support for mobile duress. Responders will know not only who activated a mobile panic button but also approximately where he or she is located. This expanded location reporting throughout a facility and the surrounding grounds helps those who need help to be found more quickly.

Give Them to Administrators, Teachers and At-Risk Students

It’s conceivable that every administrator and teacher be given a personal panic button. Students with chronic medical conditions or short-term injuries also could be equipped with a mobile duress device in addition to students with special needs as well as those at risk for bullying.

To determine whether to implement fixed or mobile duress or a combination of both technologies, an individual school must develop a crisis or emergency preparedness and response plan. Potential threats, the internal and external environment, and the current technology and communications infrastructure must be assessed. In addition, each school must define its alerts and the associated alerting and escalation procedures. In other words, you have to ensure that the right information goes to the right people on the right devices so the right action can be taken, depending on each possible scenario identified in the threat assessment.

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